People think of psychologists or psychotherapists as practitioners who can help them cope with the physiological symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or as practitioners who can help manage the stress, anxiety, depression, or relationship issues that go along with their IBS symptoms. However, most people don’t think of psychologists and psychotherapists as practitioners who can actually help them to heal from IBS.
My Personal Journey with IBS and Psychotherapy
As a licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of IBS and other digestive issues, I am focused on helping you to heal your body and recover from IBS. Whatever digestive issue you are dealing with, I want to help you get on a path to a cessation of symptoms and long-term recovery. I know what it’s like to have a complex digestive issue that’s difficult to treat because I was diagnosed with IBS as a teenager. Today, I have been living without IBS for over twenty years.
My personal and professional experience of healing from IBS has taught me that psychotherapy can actually generate healing from IBS. Psychotherapy may not be what everyone needs in order to heal, but it may just be the thing that you need, either now or later in your healing journey. It was certainly what I needed.
My gastroenterologist, who was thankfully a progressive physician, referred me to a psychologist. Initially, I was reluctant to go. My frustration with my symptoms made me relent. Now, I wish that I hadn’t waited until I was so desperate for help. After one year of seeing this psychologist for one hour each week – and receiving no additional treatments – I got about 50% better.
Because of psychotherapy, I was able to resume life as it had been before my diagnosis. I wasn’t fully recovered after that first year of therapy, as some IBS symptoms lingered. I would say, however, that psychotherapy got my healing journey going. And it just might do the same thing for you.
How Does Psychotherapy Contribute to Healing?
I believe that, in the years to come, research will show that IBS has a lot to do with relationships: your relationship with your body and all of the parts of it; your relationship with yourself and all of the parts of yourself – your thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and pain; your relationships with all of the various people in your life; your relationship to your environment, which includes your relationship to the world and all that’s happening in it and around you.
We live in the context of relationships.
We’re born in the context of relationships.
We grow up in the context of relationships.
We develop IBS in the context of relationships.
So, it makes sense that our bodies can heal from IBS in the context of relationships.
Relational healing – or healing in the context of relationships – is not within the scope of training for physicians trained in Western medicine. It is, however, well within the scope of practice for psychologists and psychotherapists. We get an awful lot of training in relational healing and the things that go along with it such as attachment, emotions, communication, depression, anxiety, and trauma. If you have met with a therapist who didn’t have this training, there are many other therapists who do.
Psychotherapy, IBS, and the Mind-Body Connection
From the perspective of your body, there is no division of the physical and the mental. You have only one body that includes a mind, a heart, and a gut. What happens in one part of the body happens throughout the rest of the body as well. They’re all connected!
A shift on any level – emotional, mental, or physiological – has the potential to create a ripple effect throughout the rest of the body.
Maybe you learn to open up to a certain feeling that you usually avoid or suppress, such as grief or anger. As a result, your body will begin to feel more ease because it doesn’t have to work so hard to keep that feeling tamped down. Similarly, when you resolve a conflict with someone or create more safety and connection with someone in your life, your body will eventually find more ease because it takes effort for your body to manage unresolved conflict.
Making one small shift and slowly recognizing its beneficial results is, I believe, what happened to me when I started psychotherapy. This happens to many people when it comes to healing. You take one step or make one change (even a very small one) that creates a ripple effect throughout your body that leads you to feel a little bit better. And if you keep taking that step, you will create a major shift from being more symptomatic to being less symptomatic. This shift from more symptomatic to less symptomatic is the goal of healing for people with IBS.
In psychotherapy, you’re going through these changes with the support of someone who cares about and is interested in you, someone who is kind and non-judgmental, someone who creates a safe space and a positive relationship in which you can be authentic.
If those qualities aren’t present in a potential relationship you’re exploring with a new psychologist or psychotherapist, try seeing someone else, because those things are essential to your healing.
If you’re not working with a psychologist or psychotherapist because some part of you feels unwilling or resistant to that relationship, ask yourself if this is some form of avoidance? Avoidance is typically a function of fear, as we tend to avoid the things that scare us. If that’s the case, I encourage you to start unpacking that avoidance and start being curious about your fear. Try exploring what comes up as you ask yourself some questions:
- What are you really afraid of?
- Is that fear something you would be willing to explore in psychotherapy?
- Do you need to take a different step before you can take the step of working with a psychotherapist?
- Maybe psychotherapy isn’t the thing that will get the ball rolling for you right now. If that’s the case, what else can?
- Can you find someone else who is able to help you heal?
- Can you develop a safe, connected relationship with someone who helps you feel at ease in your body?
Feeling ease, safety, and authentic expression in the context of relationships, whether it’s with a practitioner, your best friend, or your significant other, is going to make a huge difference in your healing journey.
Healing starts with a willingness to open up your awareness to your relationship with yourself, your body, your emotional life, your relationships, your behavior, and the world. I encourage you to explore all of the relationships that may be affecting your IBS or that might even have the potential to start healing your IBS. Psychotherapy offers a safe place to do that.
Healing is a journey. You know the destination. I’ve got the roadmap. You don’t have to hate your guts. Instead, try to be curious. Try to open up your awareness. Try to focus on relationships that are solid in all the ways I described. Discover how to heal your body.
To learn more, visit the Don’t Hate Your Guts® website where you can sign up to have weekly blog posts and the video of the week sent straight to your inbox. You’ll also receive updates about the exciting webinar series I’m about to launch. You can also follow Don’t Hate Your Guts® on Facebook. Watch this week’s video below.
Beautiful post, Jennifer.
Thank you, Irene.
Great article! As I have more health issues than just IBS I definitely feel that those issues & how I react to them has an impact on the gut, heart etc. Thank you for putting all of that into context, now if I can just implement it! That’s the hard part because when your body sends out little red flags on a regular basis that something is wrong, it’s hard to tap that down.
Glad you appreciate what I wrote in this post. Don’t work too hard at implementing. Just set the intention to slow down more often in your life, particularly when you notice the body sending out those little red flags so that you can bring more awareness to the experience. Don’t put effort into “tapping it down”. It’s hard to tap it down because it doesn’t want to be tapped down. Invest your energy in redirecting your attention and energy toward resourcing, feeling safe, connected, good, and at ease in those moments when the little red flags go up. Spending some minutes hanging out in your body while enjoying something/someone/a memory, that will help them go down. Make sense?